The end of false choices on schools
AGHHHHH! Vultures of a feather, flock together. One education advisor to Obama will hardly criticize another advisor, now will he? No, instead he will offer more of the same simplistic propaganda.
By State Sen. Michael Johnston
When President Barack Obama spoke to education groups on the campaign trail, he said he didn't believe in the false choices currently offered by the education debate. He didn't believe that it was a choice between supporting unions or supporting charters. He didn't believe it was about striving for either equity or excellence.
Instead, Obama reiterated that this moment in education is about moving beyond ideology and moving toward results. What matters is not whether a kid goes to a charter school or a district school or a magnet school; what matters is they go to a good school. What matters is not whether a child has a union teacher or a non-union teacher; what matters is that every child has an effective teacher.
The recent DPS school board elections have been miscast as a referendum on the false choice Obama sought to dispel. In the aftermath, it is important to focus on what has actually driven both Denver and Colorado's educational improvements in recent years and how that illuminates the road ahead.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been the perfect national symbol of this clear-eyed pragmatism, with a relentless focus on results. Long before he was a Cabinet member, Duncan found himself caught in a classic version of this false choice Obama dismissed. There were two competing groups of educators that released their own set of principles to guide the Obama presidency. One group was backed by "reformers" who insisted that the system needed radical changes to make sure we recruited, retained and released educators based on merit. The other was backed by a set of "union leaders" who argued that we must attend to the out-of-school variables that impact learning, including more counseling, support services and professional development.
There was an intense national commotion about which high-profile educators would sign which petition. Duncan signed both, because both groups were right. The system does need radical changes in how we recruit, retain, reward and release teachers and principals. Those teachers and principals do need more and better professional development and mentorship, and more support services are imperative.
There is a misperception that Colorado's strength in its $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant application means we are a zealously anti-union or a blindly pro-charter state. To the contrary, what Obama and Duncan find exciting about Colorado's work is precisely what educators across the country find exhilarating about Obama and Duncan: We are working collectively and relentlessly toward reform.
The Denver teachers union, the superintendent and many community leaders worked together to forge a pay-for-performance program that has become the national model. The Mapleton school district worked with its union to build a comprehensive small-schools redesign. Eagle County built a teacher incentive program that has attracted national attention with strong collaboration between community leaders, the union and the district.
In each of these examples, there is a relentless focus on making dramatic changes to business as usual. In each, stakeholders were included in the conversation to figure out how best to get there.
I am confident the new DPS board will continue the cooperation that characterizes our state and local efforts for educational improvement. We cannot stop reforming to wait for adults who are not ready to do the difficult work that kids deserve, and we will not stop being thoughtful and inclusive along the way, because it increases our chances of finding the best solution. Maintaining that bold balance will keep Colorado at the top of everyone's list of most exciting education states in the country.
Michael Johnston is a Democratic state senator from northeast Denver. He was principal of MESA in Mapleton, and served as education adviser to President Obama.
State Sen. Michael Johnston
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